November 16, 2018

The value of touch

One of the most overlooked aspects of Judaism is its obsession with material things. Yes, it’s true that our tradition is full of powerful stories, ideas and values. But those are cerebral. For me, the hidden beauty of Judaism is in the concrete — the things we can touch.

We can talk for hours about the beauty of Shabbat, but it only comes to life when you actually sit down at a Shabbat table and experience it — when you light the candles, bless the wine, wash your hands, touch the challah, sing the songs and feel the holiday. There is no sermon that can replace this experience.

It’s the difference between saying “I love you” and hugging someone you love. 

Every Jewish holiday, from Passover and Shavuot to Purim and Chanukah, “hugs” us with specific rituals. Perhaps the holiday that hugs us the most is the one we’re about to celebrate — Sukkot.

The very root of the holiday is in agriculture, humanity’s most fundamental, tactile, life-giving activity. We use our hands to touch the earth, plant seeds, harvest fruit, feel the rain. In ancient times, the agricultural harvest took place at the beginning of autumn, after which our ancestors would celebrate their abundance and give thanks to God.

It’s extraordinary to think that, today, more than 3,300 years later, Jews all over the world will celebrate Sukkot and do just as our ancestors did — give thanks to God for our harvest. 

Would this incredible continuity have been possible if all we did was tell the story to our kids? I doubt it.

Just like our other holidays, the festival of Sukkot has survived for so long because we bring it to life every year with concrete rituals. We tell the stories, yes, but we integrate them in the rituals. In the case of Sukkot, we tell the stories inside a little hut.

We build these huts to remind us of the temporary dwellings our ancestors built in their fields so they could take advantage of every minute of daylight once the crops were ready to be picked. These huts also remind us of the shelters built by our ancestors as they wandered in the desert after they left Egypt, on their way to the Promised Land.

It’s fitting that the holiday of Sukkot completes the trilogy of the festivals: Passover recalls our liberation from slavery, Shavuot honors the revelation of our holy Torah, and Sukkot represents our ongoing journey toward redemption. First came the freedom, then the blueprint, then the action.

It’s also fitting, then, that Sukkot comes immediately after Yom Kippur. What better way to follow the ambitious promises of the High Holy Days than to commemorate the concrete work our journey requires?

Our ancestors didn’t just worship and argue and pray —– they toiled on the land. They understood that a vision was nothing without the work of our hands.

Ancient Israel was, first and foremost, an agricultural society. Most of the laws, customs and rituals described in the Torah reflect this.   

Sukkot elevates the raw physicality of the land. When we hold in our hands the Four Species — the willow, palm, myrtle and etrog — we’re not honoring a fancy basket from the Pottery Barn. We’re honoring symbols of the land, the original and divine source of our sustenance.

This deep connection with nature, which infuses the festival of Sukkot, has another benefit: It’s the perfect antidote to a modern world where the most important thing we touch is a smartphone. As much as I appreciate the wonders of Google and Facebook, I have to constantly remind myself that it’s all virtual. It’s not a hug.

It’s as if Judaism figured this out 3,300 years ago — humans need to hug. We need to “touch” our stories to make them real and give them lasting meaning.

When you build  your sukkah this year and surround yourself with material symbols of what sustained our ancestors, you’ll get a good idea of why our tradition has endured for so long.

That alone is worth our gratitude. 

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at